How to Help Teens Handle the Pandemic

28 May 2020

How to Help Teens Handle the Pandemic

Read time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

The long days of social distancing trigger different reactions in adolescents. Some teens see the lockdown as an unfair forced confinement, blaming their parents and “older people.” For others, it’s a chance to hole up in their bedrooms, with more time than ever to spend in front of all sorts of screens. 

For all teens, it’s a moment of personal and collective challenge. Parents must try to understand, support, and guide their adolescent children so that this new and temporary “normal” does not rupture relationships and generate greater crises.

Getting teens to accept social distancing and stay away from their friends during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t easy. It’s worth remembering some basic characteristics of the teenage years:

  • Adolescents are, by definition, rebellious
  • They’re looking for their independence, often facing challenges to achieve it
  • In teenagers, the frontal lobe of the brain is not fully developed, meaning they don’t yet possess abilities such as impulse control and gratification, or have a real understanding of the consequences of their actions
  • Though they may not admit it, they are dependent on their social networks

A study published in April by Mental Health America, an advocacy and direct service organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, reveals that people under 25 years of age are the most affected by anxiety and depression linked to social isolation and the fear of contracting coronavirus and developing COVID-19. 

Those findings don’t surprise the experts, even when the virus has shown to be much deadlier for older people. 

Mental health issues were increasing considerably among adolescents and young adults long before the pandemic. Half of all chronic mental illnesses develop by the age of 14, and 75% develop before the age of 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

two teenage girls texting on couch

Adding fuel to the fire, the present moment brings additional and dangerous new potential risk factors for mental illness. The future of young people hangs in the balance: they can’t spend time with their friends, their schools are shuttered, their jobs are evaporating, and a terrifying new virus is making many of them wonder whether they should take a job at all. The prospects of a new boyfriend or girlfriend, or of a lack of affection, are both equally scary.

The coronavirus pandemic is difficult for every age group, but parents should be particularly attentive to signs of depression, anxiety, anger, and other emotional issues in their adolescent children.

In the current scenario, parents should even be on the lookout for any subtle changes in their kids’ routine or behavior, says Paul Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health America. Some of these signs include eating less, appearing more distracted or irritable, and changes in their sleep patterns.

Worrying Signs and What To Do

Our kids should understand that it is normal to be anxious these days. School closures and alarming headlines are frightening, and it’s natural to feel this way. Psychologists have long recognized anxiety as a normal and healthy emotion that helps to alert us of any danger and take action to protect ourselves.

The following are tips by experts on how to manage during these difficult times:

  • When teens talk back to you or respond rudely in a conversation, it’s easy to become irritated and lose your patience. In these cases, it’s best to take a deep breath. Try to communicate with your child without threats. Threatening them with punishment will generate the opposite of the results you’re seeking.
  • Try to eat meals together with your teen. The family table is always a good place for dialogue.
  • Share information about the pandemic and show your emotions. Children don’t want robot parents: they need to be aware of adults’ fears and worries, and how to overcome them.  
  • Help your kids understand that the extreme circumstances we’re living are only temporary, and their lives will not be changed forever.
  • It’s also important for them to recognize that the situation isn’t unique to them: people all over the world are living through an unprecedented moment.
  • Try to maintain a daily routine, with set hours for studying (or taking virtual classes) and recreation or other activities. Make room for entertainment and fun, more needed than ever these days. 
mom, dad and daughter playing video games
mother and daughter chatting on the couch

  • Partake in your children’s social media activities. Try to learn which applications they enjoy, make funny videos on TikTok together, etc. It can be a good opportunity to talk earnestly about the benefits and drawbacks of these popular platforms.
  • If your space allows it, spend time outside: go on walks, play sports, or take photographs.
  • If shelter-in-place measures and other restrictions have loosened where you are and the rest of your family agrees, children can help out in their communities. Shuttered daycare centers mean there’s a significant demand for child care. Generous young people can distribute meals to people in their neighborhood who need to stay home, or lend a hand in their religious communities.
  • Make sure to help them understand that the pandemic is not an individual problem but a collective one, affecting families and communities. By protecting themselves, they’re also protecting their loved ones and friends. That includes wearing a mask when going into a store or enclosed space, using latex gloves if necessary, and washing hands frequently. 
  • Parents who are worried about the social and emotional health of their teenage children should call their pediatrician or doctor for a consultation. They may offer online appointments.
  • If your child is already doing therapy, try to make sure they continue. Most mental health professionals are offering virtual sessions.

If you’re raising teenagers, you already know they experience emotions with much more intensity than adults. This is normal and appropriate, but it can be stressful for older people. To be truly empathetic, we should listen without judging them or trying to fix their problems. 

Helping your kids identify their feelings can help ease their pain and anxiety.

Online Resources for Parents and Teens

It’s vital for parents to stay positive and constantly assure their teenage children that a brighter future awaits them. There are several online resources that can be helpful for both parents and teens. 

Mental Health America offers a series of tests for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and others. They’re available in English and some in Spanish.

The Child Mind Institute provides help for parents and young people, in both English and Spanish.  

UNICEF has a section dedicated to resources for teenagers during the pandemic (in English and Spanish).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) published a report on the risks of coronavirus for people who consume drugs. Because the virus that causes COVID-19 attacks the lungs, it can pose dangerous risks for those who vape or smoke tobacco or marijuana. (Also available in Spanish.)

Ok2Talk.org is a safe and moderated online community where teens and young adults can share their stories of recovery, struggle, and hope through creative expression such as poetry, music, inspirational quotes, videos, and messages of support. The founders of this platform include the National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI) Active Minds, and Mental Health America.

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